making the invisible visible

eyesi’ve decided. i’m going to the next level in God. i’m going to be empowered by an incredible, enthusiastic, visionary leader and take this city for Christ. i’m going to be a vibrant, passionate, charismatic believer who takes excellence seriously. i’m joining a vibrant, contemporary, growing church with a powerful message that impacts the world and has a vision statement that involves loving life, loving people and loving God. i’m getting connected to a small group that will move me into that next level and take me into the unknown, teaching me to drink that living water and walk by faith. i have a vision for this nation, i’m going to see revival sweep across this land.”

heather’s  above parody post made me laugh out loud.  the funniest part was just the day before i had read the website of a new “strategic” church plant i heard about that pretty much used every single one of these buzz words!  i am glad it works for some people and i am sure it will fill a need, but i am just so not there anymore.  anyway, the result of heather’s post has been a blog meme about the subject of “taking a city for God.”  jeff at losing my religion shares some of my same thoughts about crazy church stuff and tagged me to participate. the question asked was “what would a city look like if it as really was taken for God?” there were lots of great ideas shared & you can follow some of the links at abmo’s site.  i’m a little late into the conversation & am sometimes bad at following the rules so i focused on a different angle, “how could christians participate in truly transforming a city?”

first of all, i think the idea of “taking a city for Christ” is so presumptuous (hence, the parody)…like it’s really our city to take in the first place?  there’s so much haughtiness in some of our language and actions.  but moving past that to the big idea–that Christ’s spirit could be infiltrated in a city and it would be transformed, that humility, sacrifice, love, grace, honesty, hope could permeate every house, every neighborhood, every school, every place where people lived & gathered.  well, that i can latch on to.

my response isn’t super complicated.  i believe that christians could actually change the world, a city, their community if we humbly and actively participated in making the invisible visible.  that is, if we were part of calling out the dignity and beauty and worth of every human being that lived in that city regardless of race, age, gender, socioeconomics, religion, brokenness, weird-life-circumstances-and-social-acceptedness.

i believe one of the biggest problems in every community–including most churches–is that more people than we’d like to believe actually feel invisible, worthless, purposeless.   they are not sure they really matter to anyone. stuck in shame, hiding, self-contempt, they go through the motions of their day.  some live on the streets. some live in apartments. some live in nice houses.  some make $600 a month on social security disability income, others make $6,000 a month at their cool high tech company.  some use their money to buy drugs. some use their money to buy stuff they don’t need to numb their pain.  some go to church every sunday. others worship other gods in all kinds of different ways.  some believe in nothing or are pretty sure if there was a God he has clearly forsaken them. the problem with invisibility has nothing to do with money or religion.

invisibility has to do with our disconnectedness to the heart and soul of another human being.   it has to do with our lack of close relationship with each other, of really truly knowing how our neighbor is doing, what they need, what they dream about, and how we can participate in calling that out in them.  it has to do with our weird prejudices that mean that certain people are acceptable and other people aren’t.   it has to do with our busyness and self-centeredness and tendency to hoard, self-protect.  it has to do with generations upon generations of invisibility in families with no breaking-the-cycle in sight.  it has to do with our fear of truly engaging in the messiest of the messiest parts of other’s lives so we pretend we don’t see, we don’t know, we don’t have time.  it has to do with our fear of being known and our tendency to want to somehow stay invisible, too.  invisibility is pervasive, crippling.

Jesus didn’t take a city.  rather, one at a time, he somehow made the invisible visible.  he called out the image of God in people.  all kinds of people.  from all walks of life.  the outcasts. the shamed. the lonely.  the confused.  the broken. the sick.  he heard their cry.  he stopped.  he listened.  he touched.  he offered healing.  we will never know the other ways he engaged with people, many of the incidents recorded in the gospels leave much to our imagination, but we do have this example blaring at us.  jesus never talks about right beliefs and doctrinal statements and church services.  he simply said “be like me”.  that means we are called to realize our need for God, restore dignity, sacrificially love, willingly share and notice the least likely.

the path toward making the invisible visible, to tangibly touching a city with Jesus’ love and hope, would mean we’d first have to get in touch with it.  we can’t pass on what we don’t know ourselves.  this means we have to continually reckon with our brokenness, our own shame, our own need for healing, our own invisibleness.  i believe this comes through a crazy combination of letting God’s spirit move in us & true community.  i don’t think it is a “once i get this, then i can pass it on”. i think it is a continual life-long spiritual transformation process.   as we are transformed, we get new eyes to see, new hearts to feel, new ears to listen.  we then begin to notice what we didn’t see before, next door to us, in the next cubicle to us, in the next chair to us, in the next neighborhood to us, across the city from us.  we become compelled to care.

the next hardest part of making the invisible visible in a community means we would have to cooperate with who is already there deeply committed to the same thing but with different ways of going about it–community agencies, social services, other faith communities, schools, oh all kinds of people who don’t corporately label themselves “christians” the way we feel comfortable with.   that might be the hardest part for some people, the idea that there are others out there who maybe already do it better than us and do not have a fish in their window.  but i think if we learned to value each other and how much we really need each other, we could gain much greater ground in making the invisible visible in a city.  i think we’d somehow recognize when a cup of cold water is offered, a coat is given, someone visits someone in jail, someone invisible is noticed, Jesus is getting passed on, period.

in africa, a typical hello often translates to “i see you.”  what powerful words. what if we meant it?  a city could be transformed if every man, woman, child had someone look them in the eyes, see them, and because of what they see, engage in their lives, their heart, their story in a tangible way.  the invisible becoming visible, the now visible newly able to notice the next invisible person and do what they can to make them visible, too.   so much glory to be uncovered, passed on.

i think it’s doable (it’s just a lot harder than going to church).  people discovered. a city, a community, a neighborhood, a church transformed.

God help us see what you see, make the invisible visible.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

21 Comments

  • Hi Kathy,

    I’m a lurker and just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this post. I believe strongly that actually seeing, acknowledging, and welcoming the strangers we encounter every day have a greater impact than we realize. I think we all feel invisible to some degree, and even if I do no more than smile at the people I pass and look them in the eye, I am at least saying “I see you, you are visible to me” to each of them.

    I found you through Emerging Women and consider you my pastor of sorts, as I’ve never been comfortable church shopping. Hope you don’t mind…

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  • Great post, Kathy. Jesus saw those people that his culture ignored, So, maybe we can take a shot at it too.

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  • Wow, Kathy. It’s a great thought, this “making visible” concept. I’ll have to think on it some more.

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  • Hey Kathy- thanks, as always, for that post! challenging stuff. I was just talking tonight with my bible study of late-middle-aged-suburban-white-folks about this very same thing… who are the people today who we ignore, whether intentionally or accidentally. We have a lot of work to do!

    Keep leading us that direction!

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  • There are so many good things in this post! The thing that sticks out to me a lot especially is this:

    “invisibility has to do with our disconnectedness to the heart and soul of another human being. it has to do with our lack of close relationship with each other, of really truly knowing how our neighbor is doing, what they need, what they dream about, and how we can participate in calling that out in them… it has to do with our busyness and self-centeredness and tendency to hoard, self-protect … it has to do with our fear of truly engaging in the messiest of the messiest parts of other’s lives so we pretend we don’t see, we don’t know, we don’t have time. it has to do with our fear of being known and our tendency to want to somehow stay invisible, too.”

    I think there are two issues facing us in our day around this and you highlight both. The first has always been a problem for people and that is valuing and including the outcasts – truly wanting to see them. The second, and I think more unique/primary to our culture, is that we have structured our American way of life around exactly what you described in that last sentence what I quoted – wanting to be known and not known at the same time. In this context I’d say we both know that life is in relationships and we deny our own responsibility and power we’ve been given to foster them.

    Tangibly, I think this has manifested itself in our built environment in how we have structured everything around the assumed use of a car. The way we use cars in this fallen world manifests all the worst parts of a stereotypical summary of postmodernism. It’s all about doing what you want to do unless you are infringing upon someone else’s ability to do the same. You can drive down the street and not have to honor the place you are driving in as a place or the houses you are driving by (and the stories that happen in and around them) and you especially aren’t having to acknowledge all the humans you are technically surrounded by in their isolated bubbles. You can set the temp and the radio to exactly where you want it. All you have to do is obey laws designed to maximize shared use of the system. Adding to that, people’s travel-sphere is greatly increased by cars so we don’t share daily life with a similar set of people. We all go to different places to sleep, work, and play and with them we participate minute amounts in several different communities that barely overlap. From my studying I feel comfortable saying we are the loneliest society ever. And It’s all exacerbated by email and cell phones.

    What this all does is make it really easy for us only to be around the people we want to be around the amount of time we want to be around them. We remove massive amounts of friction from our lives. Sociologists call this living in the “space of flows.” So, Jesus said “the poor will always be among you.” Yeah, until we invent ways to not have to live by them. Virtually every society before our suburban one integrated poor and rich in the same community. We also easily separate ourselves from homosexuals, and other races (this unfortunately isn’t new but our built environment and assumed way of life almost guarantees it). It also marginalizes the less charismatic people by making a system that favors them because we have infinite people to choose to be around and highly particular environments we can customize to be around them, so we end up just calling the people we like the most. No wonder people like Isaac Maldonado went through the mall in my town a few years ago, shooting a rifle, killing six people, and all while screaming “the world will feel my pain.” They say he lived in an apartment in a very suburban part of my town and didn’t have a lot of friends. Not to justify it, but it seems like a person could easily get so isolated without anyone really knowing and get to the point they just want to leach out against the system that is isolating them, in general.

    Obviously, this is a subject I care a great deal about. I think it lies at the heart of the Church’s ability to walk in her full calling in our country. I also think it is linked to every major issue we have (environment, current wars, the energy crisis, affordable housing, epidemic rise of depression, breakdown of community, political polarization, and much more). I really appreciate you writing on this broader theme. It is so key. You have a great way of engaging issues from your heart.

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  • jeff – thanks for the tag and the good conversation.

    diana – thanks for saying hi. it always helps so much to get an idea of who is reading and i agree with you that all of us feel a sense of invisibility to some degree & every little gesture made to a stranger makes more of a difference than you know. e can never assume that that person we just said hi to is actually connected to someone in a good way. we might be the first friendly look in-the-eye connection they’ve had all week. any hope and encouragement you can get from this site, the conversations, freely take!

    glenn – i agree, isn’t it so interesting though that those are the exact people that most typical churches don’t really want around or don’t quite know what to do with?

    heather – glad you stopped by. you are the one who started it, i really am glad i found your site. good stuff.

    ted – that’s cool that you guys are having the conversations. in the typical evangelical churches i have been in where “neat and tidy” is sort of the norm, the people that get ignored a lot is anyone with any kind of mental illness, ongoing struggle that doesn’t really “get better”. they are so uncomfortable with not seeing someone conform. i also think when people get divorced, admit an addiction, start letting their mess out, it sort of freaks people out if the culture isn’t used to it and so some use the good ol’ natural coping skill of avoiding!

    justin – so many great thoughts shared here, thanks, that is why the comments are so important because they continue to flesh out the idea. i agree, our society has created an individuality mentality that is really damaging to our soul. we have created a sense of not needing each other when God’s image in us is a basic sense of the need for relationship. that’s why as christ followers we must continue to press into the place that is most scary for many–meaningful real relationship with other people. so much work to be done, beauty to be uncovered. thanks for your heart, your ministry. you do give me great hope because you are young, the next generation and you can keep this fire of hope & change alive!

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  • Frequent lurker, infrequent commenter here.:)

    I really, really loved this post. It’s interesting to me that the church can get so busy going to the “other” parts of town to “take the city” and get too busy to connect with their own neighbours in the process. What if we saw the invisible in those we are in direct contact with?

    Thanks for the great thoughts. 🙂

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  • Kathy – Word. You’ve been writing on some great subjects I’ve thought a lot about. I so appreciate that conversation facilitation (as manifested in my ginormous comment 😉

    That whole issue of interdependence is pretty key, I agree. It’s weird how even our economic system hides our need for others. We can’t put a face on the other end of the transaction usually.

    p.s. I’m not anti-technology. It’s just a tool. It’s our assumed use of it centered around individual independence that I struggle with.

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  • Kathy, I am grateful that people like you are around, people who know how to put into words the feelings and experiences that many of us have had or are going through. I have been a part of exactly what your post described, those who want to “take things for God”. I has always been a cause that has not met with the kind of success that people expect…lots of numbers of changed people. But, what I have observed and experienced is that there is always a small number that God touches and their lives become less invisible, they feel that there is now a purpose and that God really does care.

    I thank you for your honest words, I just wish I could put my thoughts and experiences in print as clearly as you do.

    Peace,
    John

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  • jenn – i know all about being an infrequent commenter, frequent lurker. that is so me. thanks for saying hi, though, it helps now and then to know who else is reading. i think “taking the city” is sometimes the church’s big distraction to actually having to focus on cultivating good relationships in their own houses…it’s like an avoidance technique or something? anyway, i’m not all for one and not the other, i think we need a beautiful blend of both and not just default to the easy one that makes us feel better but has nothing to do with true transformation. hope to hear from you again!

    justin – i am with you, it’s not about the technology, it’s about all of the distractions & barriers that keep us from what we really were built to need and that is possible to get (just not easy).

    john – i am seeing more and more how beautiful it is to have one life made visible. one life. churches and ministries focus on the thousands and do lots of good things and can easily in the process miss out on the most important thing–a person really being known and loved. programs, rah-rah, oh all that stuff means nothing in the big scheme compared to someone really giving a rip about them. let’s all get together for some laughs again soon.

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  • Bummer. I was getting into the energy of the parody before I heard it was a parody.

    We can’t “take a city” because that goes against free will, but why not just live with the energy described here in our everyday lives? Why shoot it down? Why not go to the next level?

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  • susan, i don’t think there’s anything at all wrong with “going to the next level” but to me the joke is that so much is about the hype and not about the real nuts and bolts of truly becoming a more caring and loving person. i’m pretty sure jesus wasn’t too focused on “excellence” but that’s just me. we can all see it differently, that’s for sure!

    jeromy – LOVED your post. hope others who haven’t read it check it out, so good!

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  • “Jesus didn’t take a city. rather, one at a time, he somehow made the invisible visible.”

    this is the first time i’ve read your blog, but it is a thought provoking post and i really enjoyed it. what you talk about it something i am interested in, but i feel overwhelmed and so small…not sure how to go about it. especially with where i am at the moment. anyway, thanks for the post and i’ll probably be lurking around for a bit…

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  • davida, glad you stopped by and said hello. i am wondering if maybe a starting place for all of us is noticing where in our lives we are in small ways caring for another human being, calling out their goodness & beauty. maybe it’s right in our family or a close relationship or with someone God put in our path that as unexpected. i think many are doing it already, it just somehow hasn’t “counted” in the way that ministry usually gets counted (which in my opinion is sad because it minimizes the natural movement of people’s lives & has an expectation of ‘big’ instead of simple). just wondering & thinking out loud. thanks for sharing…

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  • this reminded me of something I read Eleanor Roosevelt said:

    “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

    making the invisible visible – this is a beautiful dream…

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